There Are a Couple Different Movies in This Doc About Benazir Bhutto

12/03/2010 6:00 AM |

Directed by Duane Baughman

The American support of the Afghan Mujahideen in their war against the Soviet Union is often underplayed in contemporary media, it seems. When one considers how crucial the Middle East is to America’s diplomacy today, it would seem obvious to point out that U.S. foreign policy, by subsidizing the Mujahideen and providing them with serious artillery, created its own worst enemy. Oddly enough, that is one of the points that comes across with striking clarity in Bhutto, Duane Baughman’s documentary that ostensibly centers on the first female leader of an Islamic nation.

Perhaps “ostensibly” is an unfair word: the film is very much concerned with the narrative arc and character of Benazir Bhutto, who comes across as an engrossing, admirable figure. Yet some of the most fascinating segments in Bhutto come when Baughman is exposing some of the backroom dealmaking that led to the Middle East (and especially Pakistan) becoming the powder keg of Islamic fundamentalism that it is today. As today’s politicos constantly wax anxious over the possibility of Iran or North Korea getting “the bomb,” it’s interesting that there isn’t more stress over the fact that Pakistan, an equally volatile country with a powerful anti-U.S. contingent, already has quite a few. Pakistan’s nuclear program began under General Mohammad Zia, essentially a military dictator who had no fear of the U.S. because of Ronald Reagan’s accommodating stance: Reagan needed Zia to help the U.S. fund key anti-Soviet movement, and Zia, who had instituted Sharia law in Pakistan, kindly led the U.S. to a group led by a guy named Osama bin Laden.

When not glossing the ironic idiocies of U.S. foreign policy, Baughman does put together a moving portrait of a woman who seemed well aware of her odds of survival upon return to a newly hostile Pakistan, led at the time by a newer General—Pervez Musharraf. One of the film’s most touching moments comes when Bhutto’s oldest daughter recounts her mother wishing her a happy 18th birthday a month in advance, days before her return to Pakistan after her eight years of exile. Bhutto lasted a little over two months back before she was assassinated. The film presents Bhutto—born into a Pakistani family of wealth and political clout that has been referred to as the “Kennedys of Pakistan”—as having viewed political service as a moral obligation for a woman of her position. In a family with one extremist brother who probably couldn’t have made it as a Pakistani politician (Murtaza) and another who was poisoned at age 27 (Shanawaz), Benazir was the clan’s best hope for a politician to build upon the legacy of their father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was a powerful progressive Prime Minister of the nation from 1973 to 1977.

Bhutto, ultimately, is a film as compelling as the audience’s interest in its subject matter—for those who are eager to learn more about the devilishly tricky political considerations of a complex nation like Pakistan, it’s a stimulating doc. However, its strongest moments, regarding the irony of how the U.S. helped create the modern Middle East, are somewhat parenthetical entries in the larger scope of the film—parenthetical entries that certainly deserve a documentary of their own.

Opens December 3